A couple of not-so-new publications have crossed my screen as I prepare for a leadership course that I teach at Queens. They both struck a chord that may be a bit contrapuntal in these times of focusing on abusers of power. We need to do that and root them out – not to get rid of power, but to make sure it gets used well. To that end, power is not a dirty word in public sector leadership. In fact, having the right power mix and using it effectively is the key to getting any public policy implemented. The use of power to the right end is a core competency that we so often see ignored because of this rush to modesty that pervades the bureaucratic culture.
Right off the start, both Jeffrey Pfeffer in his classic, Power, and the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL) in its publication, “The Role of Power in Effective Leadership,” dissociate the idea of power from the idea of position in the hierarchy. Both see power as a combination of soft and hard characteristics that form a dynamic mix within organizations and that can come together in different ways at different times.
The CCL did a major survey of leaders on what they saw as the true levers of leadership and how they are used. The top three most frequently leveraged sources of power were the power of expertise, the power of information and the power of relationships. The power of punishment, or the ability to sanction individuals for failure to conform to standards or expectations, is the least-leveraged source of power. This is not just a happy-face notion of power, but a realistic one. Unfortunately, as Pfeffer points out so well, too much is made of the leader-at-the-top image – even more so today when so many examples of the white knight leader abusing his or her power keep coming up.
The other reality that both these studies point out is that power is a dynamic mix. Here one day and gone tomorrow. It is often built up around issues or projects and then dissipates as the issues are resolved or the projects complete. Power and position are not equated, and the assumption that a person in a position of authority exercises a distinct and constant form of power is an illusion.
Definitions abound of what power actually is. Pfeffer uses a theoretical definition that power is the ability of one social action to overcome resistance in achieving a desired objective. My definition from both my experience in government and in academia is that power is the ability to get things done. Using that definition, the search for and use of power as a normal part of management starts to make sense. You can’t get much done without the right power mix. This will, of course, always include some form of hierarchical authority. I use that word since most hierarchical positions have both the power of the person and the power of the position itself, often written into law. Together they create the authority.
Very simply, if you want to get something done, you have to understand the power dynamics of the context. This means having political skills of perception, communication and ability to make alliances. But you also want to know which levers you will need, such as key relationships that enable the quick creation of agreements and problem-solving. There is power in position, and it may not be your own. That is why sponsorship and protection from above are important in establishing your power mix. So too is the ability to use various forms of charisma (no, that is not a bureaucratic oxymoron) through style, inspiration and encouragement. We all know the power of information; not information hoarded, but information developed and shared at the right time. This links as well as the power of expertise. Credible specialized knowledge is often a central part of public sector work. Having it or having access to it, or having it support your role, enhances your power mix. Finally, through a combination of position, access to power, access to resources and sanctions, is the power to reward and punish. These are part of the reality of the power mix we are building here.
So, it only makes sense to realize that power is not a dirty word. It is part of the air we breathe in government. Use it. Understand what it truly is. Plan every major move with an eye to the power mix you will need to get things done. Never ever abuse it or take yourself too seriously in using it; remember that power and ethics actually belong together and are not a zero-sum game.